NCF Nation: Max Wittek

Cody Kessler quietly becomes star QB

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
11:00
AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- Since the turn of the millennium, there has been no more celebrated spot in college football than quarterback at USC. It's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and household names pretty much every year, even after the NCAA kicked its jackboot through the front door of Heritage Hall. If you are a college football fan of just about any stripe, you know who the USC quarterback is.

So... who is the USC quarterback?

Most Pac-12 fans, after perhaps a short pause, went, "I know this... Kessler... Oh, Cody Kessler!" Just about everyone else drew a blank.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC quarterback Cody Kessler has been able to celebrate 25 touchdown passes this season.
And yet Kessler is turning in a season that pretty much matches -- at least statistically -- the best of the USC QBs, and his name is replacing many of them in the Trojans record book.

Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his throws while averaging 283 yards per game, with 25 TDs and just two interceptions. He is fourth nationally in both completion percentage and passing efficiency (168.2), and that efficiency number is on pace to break Mark Sanchez's season record of 164.6 set in 2008. Kessler ranks ninth in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR.

Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (164.7) is second best in the nation, his completion percentage (70.0 percent) is third and his passing TDs (21) are fourth. No quarterback in the nation has thrown as many passes as Kessler and had only two interceptions, and only one besides Kessler has thrown at least 25 TDs with just two interceptions.

Of course, ahead of Kessler in most measures and casting a long shadow is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman. That isn't surprising. But it is surprising that in the Pac-12, owner the nation's deepest and most talented class of quarterbacks, it is Kessler who leads the race for second-team All-Pac-12 and not, say, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Kessler's season has not gone unnoticed, as he is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback, along with Mariota and Hundley.

It also should be noted his numbers shouldn't be surprising as he quietly finished the 2013 season on a notable uptick, particularly after Lane Kiffin was fired. After throwing two interceptions at Arizona State last Sept. 28 -- Kiffin was fired at LAX the same night -- Kessler threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the final nine games, and just one pick in the final five.

"If you look at the second half of last season, I think Cody really came on with his game," first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It just continued to build on that momentum. No. 1 is his confidence, his belief in himself and the guys around him. No. 2, we were implementing a new scheme that fits his skill set. He's been making really good decisions with the football."

This season, Kessler threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last month and followed up earlier this month with five against Washington State while reaching 400 yards for the first time in his career.

"He doesn't take any chances, that's the biggest thing," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful out there."

Leach has seen two Kesslers. In 2013, Kessler went 8 of 13 for 41 yards with an interception in a Cougars upset at USC, a notable nail in Kiffin's coffin. It has been noted frequently that Kiffin seemed to prefer big-armed Max Wittek in USC's 2013 QB competition, even though Kessler had decisively outplayed him as Matt Barkley's backup and during their spring and preseason battle. Nonetheless, Kessler has refused to take shots at Kiffin, who seemed reluctant to let Kessler throw the ball downfield, despite a talented crew of receivers.

“We had a good relationship that last year. He obviously gave me the job after a while," Kessler said of Kiffin. “[But], at times, I felt like I could do more and I wasn’t allowed to do more.”

Kessler was freed up when Clay Helton took over play-calling last season and has thrived with Sarkisian calling the Trojans' new up-tempo offense, with Helton remaining as QB coach.

Said Kessler, “I’ve really, really taken the next step with Coach Helton and Coach Sark, studying a lot more film throughout the week, knowing my opponent, knowing what look we’re going to get when we line up in what formation, knowing where I’m going with the ball each and every play.”

While Kessler's numbers have been outstanding, the ultimate measure of all USC quarterbacks is winning championships. At the very least, they need to beat UCLA and Notre Dame.

The junior almost certainly will have to wait until next year to make a run at the Pac-12 title. After a date with California on Thursday, he faces the Bruins and Fighting Irish over the next two weekends.

Here's a guess that if he beats both of them, his Q rating will go up considerably in Los Angeles and across the country.

TCU’s future starting quarterback might have spent his spring in College Station, Texas.

It’s possible Texas' next starter hasn’t even moved to Austin yet.

And half the teams in the Big 12 still haven't officially named a starter for the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeJ.W. Walsh
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtJ.W. Walsh showed comfort and patience this spring, emerging as the clear favorite to become Oklahoma State's starting quarterback.
But while quarterback continues to be the Big 12’s biggest moving part, the spring brought at least some clarity to the position across the league.

After losing the job last season, J.W. Walsh retook a commanding lead in Oklahoma State’s third quarterback derby in as many years.

Grant Rohach built off his strong finish last season to head into the summer as the clear frontrunner at Iowa State.

And even though Clint Trickett sat out the spring recovering from a shoulder injury, none of West Virginia’s other spring contenders could unseat him from the top of the depth chart.

Elsewhere, Kansas surprisingly named sophomore Montell Cozart as its starter days after he outshined incumbent Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the Jayhawks’ spring game.

And Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb rode the momentum of their breakout bowl performances to spring improvement.

Even the two schools with the biggest quarterback questions received some possible panaceas this spring.

Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel’s backup at Texas A&M the last two seasons, revealed two weeks ago that he would be transferring to TCU, where he’ll be eligible immediately. The Horned Frogs, who are installing an up-tempo offense similar to one Joeckel played in with the Aggies, ended spring with Trevone Boykin as their No. 1 quarterback, even though Boykin finished last year as a receiver.

To the south, another high-profile transfer could soon be following Joeckel to the Big 12. Since announcing he was transferring from USC, Max Wittek has visited Texas three times, including the Longhorns’ spring game. Wittek would be eligible right away as well, and with David Ash out for now with a fractured foot, Wittek could viably challenge to become Texas’ opening game starter.

Such positive developments at the most critical of positions are welcome developments for a league that struggled and juggled at quarterback through much of the 2013 season. In fact, Baylor’s Bryce Petty was the only Big 12 quarterback to start every game for his team last season.

Petty, who was on the short list of Heisman contenders until November, will again be the class of the league at quarterback.

But he should have plenty more company this season, beginning with Kansas State's Jake Waters, who improved as much as any quarterback in the country did over the course of last season. In leading the Wildcats to victories in six of their final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch.

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came away impressed with the confidence Waters carried throughout the spring, which included a crisp effort in the spring game minus his favorite receiver, Tyler Lockett, who sat out the scrimmage with a minor injury.

“He just understands things a lot better,” Snyder said. “He has gained more confidence, probably just because of going through the process of going through some growing pains.”

Both Walsh and Rohach also went through growing pains last season.

But after a jittery sophomore campaign in which he eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October, Walsh re-established himself this spring and performed with the poise he did two years ago as a freshman to emerge as the favorite to become the Cowboys' starter again.

“J.W. has become more of a leader,” offensive tackle Daniel Koenig said after Oklahoma State’s “Orange Blitz” scrimmage. “He’s staying in the pocket more, which is good. Maybe a year or two years ago, he’d get nervous back there and start scrambling. But now he’s sitting in there and throwing.”

Rohach, who finished off the 2013 season by leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory at West Virginia, also showed more confidence this spring, leading Iowa State on three of its six scoring drives in the spring game. Coach Paul Rhoads said he’d wait until mid-August before declaring a starter, but Rohach seems to have the clear edge over Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning heading into the summer.

"To begin [the spring], coming off that huge game against West Virginia, putting pressure on myself, my first few practices weren't very good," Rohach said. "But as spring ball went on I shrugged off those mistakes, and I think I got a lot better."

Webb and Knight also used their final performances of last season to springboard into their second springs on campus.

Webb has been especially impressive since earning MVP honors in the Red Raiders' National University Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State. In Texas Tech’s three spring open scrimmages, he tossed 13 touchdowns with no interceptions.

“He is night and day from what he was at this time last year,” Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I am really impressed with him.”

With a limited playbook and a no-contact jersey, Knight had a lackluster showing in Oklahoma’s spring game, and was actually outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. But behind closed practices, the Sooners liked the development they saw from their sophomore quarterback, who last torched two-time defending national champ Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“He’s continued to make strides,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s not even like he played perfect in the Sugar Bowl -- there are things he missed in that game. He’s by no means a finished product.”

The quarterback position in the Big 12 is by no means a finished product, either, coming out of the spring. But the position looks better -- and clearer -- now than it did just two months ago.
This week's "Take Two" topic: Who will be Texas’ starting quarterback in the Longhorns’ Aug. 30 opener against North Texas?

Take 1: Max Olson -- David Ash

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesIf David Ash can stay healthy, he's Texas' best option at quarterback for 2014.
When is the last time we saw David Ash at his best?

There are two correct answers: Either the second half of the 2013 opener against New Mexico State (a team that would go 2-10), or the second half of the 2012 Valero Alamo Bowl to rally past Oregon State.

Texas fans have been clinging to those fleeting flashes of brilliance for, what, eight months now? Those quarters are some of the best evidence that, when everything is clicking, Ash can operate a tempo offense with confidence and creativity.

But he has to do it for four quarters and 12 games if he wants to hold on to Texas’ starting quarterback job.

I don’t doubt that, barring another injury, Ash will be the guy behind center when the Longhorns open their season. He did enough this spring in nearly a dozen practices to show Charlie Strong and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson he’s the right quarterback to bet on.

The foot fracture Ash is recovering from now is a poorly timed setback, no question, and it prompts skeptics to point out Ash has now dealt with three troubling injuries (broken ribs, concussions, foot fracture) in less than two years.

An Ash optimist would point out this: As a true sophomore in 2012, he was a top-25 passer by QBR and efficiency standards. And, really, it won’t be easy for another QB to surpass him. Tyrone Swoopes should redshirt. Jerrod Heard is better off doing the same. That leaves potential transfer Max Wittek, who’d face three months of catching up this summer, to learn the offense.

As long as Ash doesn’t eliminate himself from the race with another injury, you only need that process of elimination to see it’s still his job to lose.

Take 2: Jake Trotter – Max Wittek

I don’t deny Ash has talent. But after missing an entire season due to lingering concussion issues, then most of a spring with a fractured foot, I’m skeptical of Ash’s long-term health. And that’s why I’m going another direction.

Swoopes showed in the spring game that he’s not ready to be the starting quarterback at Texas, even with a decent finish after a disastrous start. Heard is loaded with potential, but he’s going to be a true freshman.

That leaves USC transfer Max Wittek, who visited the Austin campus for a third time over the weekend, suggesting a decision to ink with the Longhorns could be imminent. Wittek will graduate from USC in May and will be eligible immediately wherever he decides to go. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Wittek might not be Bobby Layne, but given Ash’s injuries, Swoopes’ lack of polish and Heard’s complete inexperience, Wittek could very well be the best option for Strong’s maiden voyage.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong tried to play coy. Well, either that or he didn’t understand the question.

The question posed Tuesday was whether the first-year Texas coach can envision a quarterback joining this Longhorns program in the summer and competing for the starting job.

“I don’t know who that would be. You got somebody coming in for me?” Strong said before chuckling. “You got a secret guy coming here for me? We signed one in Jerrod [Heard]. He’s the only one.”

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMITexas QB Tyrone Swoopes will now run the first-team offense and coach Charlie Strong told him "This is your team and it's up to you to go lead."
This was, of course, a veiled attempt at the question Horns fans have been chewing on for weeks and, in particular, the past five days: Is Max Wittek coming to Texas?

The Longhorns’ need for the former USC quarterback looms large now that David Ash has been lost for the spring. Right now, there’s a whole lot more interest in the three passers who won’t be playing in the Orange-White spring game this Saturday than the trio who will.

Finally recovered from the concussion-related issues that ended his 2013 season early, Ash was poised to once again take control of the Texas offense and he made a strong first impression on his new coaches.

Those efforts got put on hold when UT doctors discovered a fracture in his left foot that required surgery.

“It’s very tough because the injury for him, I don’t know how long he had it, but he said it had been bothering him,” Strong said. “He came in the other day, our trainers checked him and we were able to find out exactly what was wrong.

“You would’ve never known he had the injury with just how well he was practicing and the way he’s been carrying himself. He understands this: A team is going to come and go as its quarterback goes. He wants to be the leader.”

Strong won’t call Ash his clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, at least not publicly, and said he didn’t anticipate naming a starter this spring. That decision will come during fall camp. But Ash had learned the new scheme and terminology, and he’s led the offense before.

With Ash out, Texas is left with three passers for its Saturday scrimmage at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will run the first-team offense. Walk-on Trey Holtz and converted tight end Miles Onyegbule, who prior to this spring hadn’t played QB since 2010, will get the backup snaps.

After the news of Ash’s injury broke, Strong told Swoopes to get ready to roll. This is, for the final week of spring ball, his offense.

“I told Tyrone the key thing for you is it’s all about confidence and it’s all about you just doing everything we ask you to do and play within yourself,” Strong said. “Now that you are the quarterback, just take the field and know this: This is your team and it’s up to you to go lead.”

In his six appearances as Texas quarterback last season, Swoopes played like a freshman. With the exception of three drives in a Valero Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon, the dual-threat quarterback with tantalizing size (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and intriguing speed wasn’t asked to do much. He was inconsistent in the mop-up minutes he did receive.

Swoopes will remain a project until he gets more comfortable throwing the ball. His legs usually did the job while he thrived in small-town Whitewright, Texas, and he still has plenty to learn about beating Big 12 defenses.

But Strong saw enough last Saturday during a spring scrimmage to be encouraged, calling his performances “outstanding.”

“I don’t know his numbers, but he had really good numbers and threw an unbelievable ball to Marcus [Johnson] down the sideline where he beat one of our defensive backs, laid it out there and it was a big throw,” Strong said. “He did a really good job and he settled in. He took it and had the confidence and just had a different air about him, and did a really good job leading the offense.”

Still, quarterback is atop the list of Strong’s biggest concerns as Texas finishes off its first round of practices. The addition of Wittek, who has taken multiple visits to Austin and is expected to decide in the near future, would alleviate some of the worry.

So would a strong summer from Heard, a two-time state champion at Denton (Texas) Guyer who arrives the first week of June. Strong said he’ll get a chance to win the job like everyone else, but first he’ll have to master his playbook.

Heard will be in the stands on Saturday afternoon, with the thousands of other Longhorns fans. They'll be watching closely for the first round of a Texas quarterback battle, but the truth is, it hasn't even begun.
David Ash's broken foot is yet another blow to the Texas quarterback and his chances of locking down the starting quarterback job in 2014.

Ash missed the majority of the 2013 with concussion-like symptoms but was looking to get off to a fresh, and healthy, start under new coach Charlie Strong. Instead, this injury puts Ash back on the sideline for the remainder of the spring.

It’s the worst-case scenario for Ash in a lot of ways, as it opens the door for other quarterbacks to put a stranglehold on the position or, at the very least, give themselves an edge in the race to start for UT this fall. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes is one of three healthy quarterbacks expected to be available for the Longhorns’ spring game on April 19 and will get the chance to impress the new coaching staff while the other main competitors in the quarterback derby watch from the sidelines. Even though Ash will miss just the final week of spring football, his injury still removes competition in the final days of spring.

More competition is on the way with class of 2014 signee Jerrod Heard joining the mix in the summer and USC transfer Max Wittek possibly joining the fray if he decides to transfer to Texas.

For Texas, Ash’s injury makes the spring game a bit more difficult with just three healthy quarterbacks set to participate. But, more importantly, Ash’s injury has reaffirmed the Longhorns’ need for multiple options at the quarterback position. Ash has started 21 games during his UT career, giving him the experience edge over all of his competitors and the coaching staff a bit some peace of mind with a veteran option at the position. But he’s been unable to shake the injury bug during the past year, essentially putting all of the quarterbacks on even ground heading into the competition. This injury won’t help his case as he tries to win the job and prove himself as the best option during Strong’s initial season in Austin, Texas.

Don’t be surprised if UT’s pursuit of Wittek becomes an even higher priority, Swoopes’ development starts to accelerate and Heard’s summer is spent preparing the true freshman to play immediately.

Because if UT has learned anything from the past 12 months at the quarterback position, it's that one injury can turn Plan B into Plan A in a heartbeat.

Video: Pac-12 South top returning players

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
10:00
AM ET

Toni Collins and ESPN Pac-12 reporter Ted Miller discuss some of the top spring storylines and returning players in the Pac-12 South Division.
1. Back to football on Michael Sam for a moment. Even as SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the Missouri defensive end is projected as a middle-round pick because he hasn’t shown the flexibility or the lateral movement that NFL scouts want at that position. From what I am told of his work at the Senior Bowl, he had trouble changing direction. Sam’s strengths: good hands, which are critical to his demonstrated ability to get off blocks.

2. What a year the California Golden Bears have had: a new coach and a new coaching staff, a 1-11 record, with the victory coming against an FCS team, an average losing margin of 28 points in the Pac-12, a revamped coaching staff, massive debt, dwindling crowds, and all of that pales in comparison to the death of defensive end Ted Agu after he collapsed during conditioning on Friday. It simply has to start getting better.

3. The graduate-and-transfer rule that Jacob Coker (Florida State to Alabama) and Max Wittek (USC to …?) are using is eight years old, and it seems to me that football coaches are finally accepting it. I like what North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren said when graduate quarterback Pete Thomas decided to transfer. “I have really enjoyed coaching him and want him to be successful as a player and in life. Going forward I will do anything I can to help him through his transition as a transfer.” Here’s hoping Thomas has as much success as the last Wolfpack quarterback to use the rule: Russell Wilson.

Pac-12's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
AM ET
Today we put a bow on the 2013 season (almost -- a few more review posts are coming up, and then probably a few more after that). But today across the blogosphere, we’re categorizing some of the top moments and individuals from the Pac-12 season. These are set in stone and in no way open to argument or interpretation.

Best coach: Arizona State's Todd Graham was voted as the league’s coach of the year by his peers. And it’s hard to argue with that, given the fact that the Sun Devils had the best league record and won their division. But you can’t discount the job of the L.A. coaches (interim or otherwise). Ed Orgeron did a phenomenal job in relief at USC before Steve Sarkisian was hired, and Jim Mora shepherded his team through a difficult time early.

Best player, offense: Ka’Deem Carey was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. And the Pac-12 blog agrees. Certainly, cases can be made for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was on the Heisman Trophy track before being derailed by a knee injury. And there is the debate between Carey and Washington running back Bishop Sankey, which will rage until the end of days.

Best player, defense: The coaches went with Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton. And there’s nothing wrong with that selection. But cases certainly can be made for outside linebackers Trent Murphy (Stanford) and Anthony Barr (UCLA).

Best moment: Lots of them. Shocking upsets (see below) and stellar individual performances dusted the landscape of the 2013 Pac-12 season. But in terms of moments that were seared into our memories, it’s tough not to think about UCLA’s come-from-behind win at Nebraska way back on Sept. 14, following the death of Nick Pasquale. Specifically, Anthony Jefferson recovering a red zone fumble and then sprinting off the field to give the ball to Mora, followed by a big hug. It was as authentic and genuine a moment as you’ll find in sports.

[+] EnlargeKodi Whitfield
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's Kodi Whitfield had a highlight touchdown grab against UCLA.
Biggest upset: Take your pick between Utah topping Stanford or Arizona topping Oregon. Both were road losses for the favorites and both shook up the national and league landscape. Granted, Utah’s win over Stanford came earlier in the season, and early-season losses are easier to rebound from. Oregon’s loss to Arizona came at the end and cost the Ducks all kinds of postseason possibilities.

Best workhorse performance: It’s a tie between Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and Carey -- both of whom put in the work in their teams’ victories over Oregon. Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries; Gaffney carried 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown.

Best play: One of the most subjective categories, for sure, but Kodi Whitfield’s one-handed touchdown catch against UCLA was nothing short of spectacular. He elevated between two Bruins defenders and backhanded the ball out of the air for a 30-yard touchdown. Something about UCLA-Stanford brings out the one-handed catches. Recall in 2011, Andrew Luck hauled in a one-handed catch against the Bruins, and a few plays later, Coby Fleener snagged a one-handed dart from Luck for a touchdown.

Best performance, offense: Again, wildly subjective. Take your pick from Ty Montgomery’s five-touchdown day against Cal, Marion Grice’s four touchdowns against USC or Wisconsin, or Myles Jack’s four touchdowns against Washington. Brandin Cooks had a pretty nice day against Cal with his 232 receiving yards. There were games with seven touchdown tosses from Mariota and Taylor Kelly. Connor Halliday’s losing effort against Colorado State was spectacular. In terms of impact, it’s hard not to go back to Carey’s effort against Oregon.

Best performance, defense: As in every other category here, plenty to go around. But think way back to Washington State’s win over USC. Damante Horton had a 70-yard interception return that tied the game at 7-7 in the second quarter. Then, after Andrew Furney’s 41-yard field goal put the Cougars ahead 10-7 with 3:15 left in the game, Horton picked off Max Wittek, which allowed WSU to run out the clock.

Kiffin's decisions are failing USC

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
3:00
PM ET
Lane KiffinRichard Mackson/US PresswireBy maintaining play-calling duties, Lane Kiffin has put himself in the crosshairs.
In spring 2003, Pete Carroll decided that Matt Leinart should be named USC's starting quarterback over Matt Cassel. In the spring of 2008, he decided that Mark Sanchez should be named the Trojans' starter over Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp.

While Carroll's dynastic run at USC was notoriously about non-stop competition, he also understood team dynamics. He believed that it was important to name a starting quarterback as soon as possible. When he saw separation, he believed a starter should be "anointed." And, yes, that was the term he used.

"Part of the reason for naming [Sanchez] is to see [leadership] come out," Carroll told me in 2008. "He wasn't able to show it. He hadn't been anointed yet."

That formal anointing allowed the quarterback to gain and then demonstrate confidence. He became the offensive leader.

In the spring of 2011, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, formerly Carroll's offensive coordinator, leaned on this lesson when he opted to name Keith Price his starter over Nick Montana.

In all three cases, a coach made a decision and it turned out to be the right one. That is what good coaches do. They use their wisdom and intuition to make decisions that help their football team reach its potential.

At a place like USC, "reach its potential," means winning and winning big. And that is -- critically -- where USC coach Lane Kiffin, who also coached under Carroll, has fallen short. He has made decisions and they have turned out to be the wrong ones. Those wrong decisions now have him riding an 8-7 record since his team started the 2012 season ranked No. 1.

When judging Kiffin, that is what matters: The concrete decisions he makes and the real-world results of those decisions. It's not about folks who have never talked to him one-on-one judging his personality or character. It's not about the perception that he's smug or hasn't paid his coaching dues. Forget perception and personality. It's about results.

Two games into the 2013 season, after a miserably disappointing 2012 campaign, those results have been terrible, at least in the specific areas that Kiffin oversees: offense and quarterbacks. Though Clay Helton is the titular quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Kiffin's decision -- another bad one -- to retain play-calling duties this fall makes him responsible entirely for the results on offense.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Chris Williams/Icon SMICody Kessler and the USC offense were brought to their knees by Washington State.
Those results? The Trojans' longest pass play this year is 19 yards. They passed for only 54 yards -- 2.6 yards per completion -- in the 10-7 loss Saturday to Washington State, which yielded 263 yards passing per game last year. Auburn, which is using a former defensive back as its quarterback, passed for 99 yards in a win over the Cougars the week before. USC is ranked 112th in the nation in passing offense, despite having the nation's best receiver in Marqise Lee, the extremely talented Nelson Agholor and two future NFL tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.

Of course, a defense lawyer pleading Kiffin's case could try to change the narrative. He could say USC doesn't have a Leinart, Sanchez or even a Price on its roster. He could say the QB competition was too close to call -- to anoint -- at the end of spring practices. He could say Kiffin should be able to call plays because it's his team, as Carroll called plays on defense and Sarkisian calls his offensive plays. He could say USC is leading with its stout defense. He could say NCAA sanctions are hurting Kiffin's offense.

He could say the season is far from over, and that would be unquestionably true.

The easy and decisive counter to all that is to wheel in a TV and turn on a replay of the loss to Washington State. To use a Kiffin phrase, "It is what it is." And that is horrific. If the prosecutor wanted to pile on, he'd then make it a double-feature with the Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.

Yet, it's also easy to counter each defense argument.

QB talent? Max Wittek was No. 3 and Cody Kessler was No. 29 in the ESPN.com ranking of QB recruits in 2011. True freshman Max Browne was the No. 2 QB in the 2013 class. Young QBs across the country are putting up big numbers, most of whom were lower rated than these guys.

Competition too close to call? There wasn't an observer during spring practices who didn't believe Kessler had outplayed Wittek.

Call his own plays because it's his team? As the head coach, it's his job to judge performance objectively. By any measure, USC's offensive playcaller in 2012 failed at his job. He also certainly failed through two games this season.

Leading with a stout defense? Well, take a look at the scoreboard. That stout defense needed more help if winning remains the goal.

NCAA sanctions? Really? You'd use that argument after losing at home to a team that has averaged 9.8 losses per season over the past five years?

Kiffin's chief problem in 2012 was getting distracted by little things. He seemed consumed with gimmicks and gamesmanship. He hasn't seemed to grasp the fundamental fact of coaching USC: If superior players execute well, they win just about every time.

USC still has superior players. While that advantage might not be as decisive these days when matched with Oregon and Stanford, or even a rising UCLA, it certainly is when standing opposite Washington State.

Kiffin made a pair of decisions entering the 2013 season: 1. He would retain play-calling duties; 2. He would play two quarterbacks. After two games, those decisions are abject failures by even charitable measures.

Based on the "Fire Kiffin" chants in the Coliseum as the clock wound down last weekend, more than a few folks are done with charitable measures.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
11:00
AM ET
Taking stock of Week 2 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: It was inevitable that Washington State's 10-7 win at USC was going to end up being an archly negative referendum on Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, rather than a celebration of the Cougars' advancement, but the Cougs still had to make the plays to win the game. And they did. Washington State hinted at Auburn in the opener that it would be a tougher out in Year 2 under Mike Leach. At USC, the Cougars showed they are capable of winning Pac-12 games.

Best game: The Cougars' win at USC was devoid of offense, but it was the only game of the weekend that presented a lot of drama. Even California's closer-than-expected win over Portland State owned a note of inevitability once the Bears settled down on defense in the second half. In terms of good football, Oregon and Stanford certainly provided that in dominant victories.

Biggest play: Washington State cornerback Damante Horton provided the Cougs with their only touchdown when he returned an interception of a Cody Kessler pass for a 70-yard TD with one minute left before halftime. That tied the score at 7-7 and seemed to irritate Trojans fans in the Coliseum. Go figure.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsOregon RB De'Anthony Thomas rushed for 124 yards and three TDs against Virginia.
Offensive standout: There were a number of big performances against weak foes, but De'Anthony Thomas' work at Virginia stands out the most, in large part because it answered a question: Yes, Thomas can be a lead running back. His 124 yards on just 11 carries -- 11.3 yards per run -- and three touchdowns were not just flash. There were moments of physicality, too. Heck, he threw a couple of effective stiff arms against far larger defenders. He also caught a 28-yard pass, so he's still a weapon in the passing game when Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost want him to be.

Defensive standout: Horton not only had his pick-six, he also intercepted USC's other QB, Max Wittek, on the Trojans' final possession. That would be enough for a tip of the cap, but he also had two tackles for a loss and four total tackles. It's worth noting that he helped limit the nation's best receiver, Marqise Lee, to seven catches for 27 yards, though some of that may fall on the guy calling plays for the Trojans.

Defensive standout II: Stanford All-American safety Ed Reynolds had 12 tackles and an interception, leading the Cardinal's dominant defensive effort against David Fales and San Jose State. The Spartans had only 251 total yards in a 34-13 Stanford victory. Trent Murphy's two sacks also are worthy of note.

Special teams standout: New Arizona kicker Jake Smith set a school record with 16 points via kicking in the Wildcats' 58-13 win over UNLV. Smith was 3-for-4 on field goals with a long of 41 yards and he was perfect on seven extra points. Those 16 points broke the previous single-game record for kickers of 15 held previously by three players. In addition, Smith kicked off 11 times, with five touchbacks and a 63.3-yard average. The Rebels mustered only 16.5 yards per return on six tries, and Smith registered one tackle to stop a potential long return.

Smiley face: The Pac-12 took care of business and avoided upsets, going 8-0 in the Week 2 nonconference slate. There were some scares, most notably California and Colorado, but winning is the thing. The conference's top two teams, Oregon and Stanford, both posted dominant wins against respectable foes.

Frowny face: Well, this isn't terribly difficult: USC. Not USC as a whole, because the Trojans turned in a sterling defensive performance against Washington State. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done everything asked of him. Maybe more. But the Trojans' offensive ineptitude against the Cougars is inexcusable. You could make an argument that a purely random selection of play calls would have produced more points and yards than what the Trojans got Saturday as boos rained down in the Coliseum.

Thought of the week: It's measuring stick week, time for the Pac-12 to announce to the country what many started theorizing in the preseason: The Pac-12 this fall is as strong as it has been in recent memory, top to bottom, and should be in the mix when debating the nation's best conference. There are games against three ranked teams: California vs. No. 4 Ohio State, UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska and Arizona State vs. No. 20 Wisconsin. Further, Washington visits Illinois, Colorado plays host to Fresno State, Boston College visits USC and Tennessee is at Oregon. The Pac-12 blog -- and others on the West Coast -- have talked the talk. Now the teams must walk the walk.

Questions for the week: Was Washington State Kiffin's Waterloo? It's not difficult to ascertain what fans at the Coliseum were thinking after the 10-7 loss to Washington State. After booing throughout the game, they chanted "Fire Kiffin" in the fourth quarter. The Pac-12 blog gets no joy from hot seat talk. Being gleefully snarky about a guy struggling at his life's work is pretty lame. But Kiffin is a big boy. Big-time college football is a bottom-line profession -- winning is the thing. And that's even more true at a place such as USC. Things will have to turn around quickly and dramatically, particularly on offense, for Kiffin to retain his job.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
10:00
AM ET
Five things we learned about the Pac-12 in Week 2.

  1. The Pac-12 can rally: After going 7-3 in Week 1, the most disappointing of those losses being Oregon State’s loss to Eastern Washington, the Pac-12 bounced back in Week 2, going 8-0 in its nonconference games. Most were blowouts. Some were dicier (cough, Cal, cough, Colorado, cough, Oregon State, sort of), but they were wins nevertheless. It was the kind of week the Pac-12 needed heading into a Week 3 that will see a significant uptick in the competition. The Pac-12 faces four Big Ten teams, three of which are ranked. And through the first two weeks of the season, the combined record of the nonconference foes in Week 3 is 18-2. The bar is raised. Despite the close calls, some very strong performances from ASU, Arizona, Utah and Stanford should not go unmarked. And does anyone else get the feeling that when Central Arkansas took a 24-17 lead in the fourth, the old Buffs would have wilted? Kudos to Mike MacIntyre for rallying his team (getting turnovers helps).
  2. [+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
    AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffDe'Anthony Thomas had little trouble against Virginia, but the Oregon offense wasn't perfect.
    Good can be better: We know Oregon is good. We also know the Ducks can be better. For the second straight week, De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota rushed for at least 100 yards (124 for DAT, 122 for Mariota) and the scoreboard shows a dominating performance over Virginia. But there were uncharacteristic drops. Four drives stalled and turned into punts. And while we concede that Oregon will in fact have to punt from time to time, we certainly don’t expect drives of three plays, 2 yards; three plays, minus-1 yard; three plays, minus-9 yards. Take it as a compliment that you can beat a BCS conference opponent, on the road, 59-10 and still have things to work on.
  3. Lane Kiffin is on fire (not in a good way): The hottest seat in America just got a healthy dusting of thermite. The quarterback soap opera, which is now turning into horrific reality TV, is overshadowing what should be a couple of great performances from USC’s defense. And it’s actually gotten to the point where the quarterback play is hurting the defense. In USC's loss to Washington State, Cody Kessler was 8-of-13 for 41 yards with a pick-six. Max Wittek was 3-of-8 for 13 yards with an interception. Through two games, the quarterbacks are a combined 26-of-50 for 226 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Want some perspective? Arizona safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant has more interceptions returned for touchdowns (two) than both USC quarterbacks have touchdown passes. This make-or-break season for Kiffin is breaking, rapidly. Hats off to the Cougs, who have beaten two Top 25 teams in their last three games.
  4. Goff and Wilson, young guns: The Utes have been star-crossed at quarterback the last couple of seasons, but they appear to have something special in Travis Wilson. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Wilson’s showing against Weber State was one of the finest quarterback performances in the last decade. His raw QBR rating was 99.7. Raw meaning it will be adjusted to reflect quality of competition -- so it will drop. Still, he averaged 16.2 yards per play, accounted for five touchdowns and his rating of 99.7 is the eighth-ranked single-game score by any quarterback with at least 25 action plays since 2004 (fifth in the last five seasons). It’s the highest total QBR with that many action plays since Andrew Luck posted a 99.9 versus Cal back in November 2010. If you still aren’t up on the QBR, click here. You’ll be seeing it a lot on the blog this season -- especially with quarterbacks like Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Kevin Hogan, Keith Price and apparently, Wilson. Speaking of bright young quarterbacks, also per our friends at Stats and Info, Cal's Jared Goff has 930 passing yards in two games. That’s the second most by a quarterback in his team's first two games since 2000 (Colt Brennan had the most in 2007).
  5. Stanford owns Cali: Stanford coach David Shaw improved to a perfect 10-0 against schools from California. The Cardinal’s 34-13 win over San Jose State moved him to 3-0 against the Spartans since taking over in 2011. He’s also 2-0 against USC, 3-0 against UCLA and 2-0 against California. If anyone is curious, the margin of victory in those 10 games is 16.1 points. But that’s a bit skewed by a pair of 2011 victories over San Jose State (57-3) and UCLA (45-19). There have been some tight ones, like the three-overtime USC game in 2011, 31-28 over Cal in 2011, 20-17 over San Jose State in 2012, 27-24 over UCLA in 2012 and 21-14 over USC in 2012. Still, perfect is perfect.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
9:01
AM ET
A few storylines to keep an eye on in Week 2.

    1. Heavy favorites: The Pac-12 is favored in all eight of its nonconference games this week. In fact, the league is favored by at least 10 points in every game and by at least 20 points in six of the eight. It should be a strong week for the conference. Should being the operative word.

 

  • League play kicks off: The ninth game this week features the first conference showdown of the season with Washington State traveling to USC. The Cougs are coming off a tough loss at Auburn, where Connor Halliday completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown. Cody Kessler is expected to start for the Trojans, but Max Wittek likely will see time again. USC’s defense had four interceptions and seven sacks in its Week 1 win over Hawaii. WSU's last win at USC was in 2000.
  • Debuts: After spending last Saturday lounging around and watching football, Arizona State coach Todd Graham and Stanford coach David Shaw have to get back to work. The Sun Devils open the season on the cusp of the Top 25 and host Sacramento State on Thursday night. Stanford hosts San Jose State in the Bill Walsh Legacy Game. The Cardinal opened the season ranked No. 4 but got bumped down to No. 5 for their Week 1 laziness.
  • Off and running: The Pac-12 had seven players rush for at least 100 yards in Week 1, headlined by Washington’s Bishop Sankey. He and the Huskies are off this week prepping for their game against Illinois on Sept. 14. Three of those seven came from Oregon -- a school record with De’Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall and Marcus Mariota all eclipsing 100 yards. The other 100-yard rushers were Jordon James (UCLA, which is off this week), Daniel Jenkins (Arizona) and Tre Madden (USC).
  • 2-oh? Colorado snapped an eight-game losing streak last week with its win over Colorado State. The Buffs host Central Arkansas on Saturday with a chance to start 2-0 for the first time since 2008.
  • Crazy eights: Stanford and San Jose State are both riding eight-game winning streaks dating back to last season. That’s the first time in all of the years the schools have played that both have enjoyed simultaneous streaks.
  • Dominating the MWC: The Pac-12 went 5-0 against the Mountain West last week with Utah (Utah State), Colorado (Colorado State), USC (Hawaii), Washington (Boise State) and UCLA (Nevada) all scoring victories. The Pac-12 has three more games against the Mountain West this week with Arizona traveling to UNLV, Hawaii visiting Oregon State and San Jose State at Stanford. It was a rough opening weekend for the West Coast’s little brother league, which went just 3-9.
  • Road warriors: No. 2 Oregon goes on the road for the first time this season and is riding the nation’s best winning streak away from home. The Ducks have won 15 straight road games. Alabama and Northern Illinois are tied for second with nine. Oregon’s last road loss was at Stanford in 2009.
  • Strong debuts: The three new coaches in the Pac-12 went 2-1 in their season openers. Mark Helfrich (Oregon) rolled over Nicholls State (no shocker there). Mike MacIntyre led Colorado to an emotional win over an in-state rival in Colorado State, and Sonny Dykes’ California team put up a gritty effort in defeat against Northwestern.
  • Suspensions lifted: After being suspended for Week 1, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher last season, will make his debut against UNLV. Daniel Jenkins filled in quite nicely, rushing for 139 yards on 12 carries, including a 91-yard touchdown run. Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who was also suspended for Week 1, is expected to be on the field when the Huskies return to action next week. Cal linebacker Chris McCain had his suspension rescinded after he was ejected per the NCAA’s new targeting rule and will play against Portland State.

 

Kiffin: QB questions part of the job

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
4:00
PM ET
Lane Kiffin has come to terms with the fact that no one wants to talk about the high points of Thursday's win over Hawaii.

They don't want to discuss that his Trojans traveled to an awkward time zone and won by 17 points; or that his remodeled, remolded defense played its first game in the new scheme and tallied four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, eight tackles for a loss and seven sacks.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireDespite the constant questions, Lane Kiffin is not going to rush his decision on the USC QBs.
After all, it's USC -- where good enough is hardly ever good enough, and criticisms come easier than kudos. Whatever criticisms the media has of Kiffin, and it’s usually not shy about sharing them, Kiffin and USC are 1-0. Three other Pac-12 teams would love to be in that position -- one of which was previously ranked. In Kiffin’s mind, the win is all that matters.

And he’s right. Agree or disagree with the way Kiffin captains his ship, calls his plays or manages his personnel, he’s right. It wasn’t always pretty against Hawaii, especially offensively. But it was a win.

“I’ve gotten over that frustration over the years of being here,” Kiffin said. “It is what it is. You sense that immediately in the postgame news conference when you come out to the media. There’s not a lot of questions about the brand new freshmen making plays. Significant plays. Justin Davis almost going for 100 yards. Su’a Cravens getting an interception on the fourth play of his career. The questions are always about something negative. It is what it is.”

At the root of those questions is the fact that USC’s quarterback soap opera has played out very publicly since the Sun Bowl loss last season. It’s certainly been a sore point with fans. That Cody Kessler and Max Wittek will likely go through the same first-half/second-half routine against Washington State after months of evaluation speaks to the divide between loyal followers and their head coach. No longer is there a Wittek camp vs. a Kessler camp. There is simply a pick-a-starter-already-camp vs. Kiffin.

But he’s not going to rush it. So expect both to play.

“I don’t think anything is ever certain,” Kiffin said when asked if both will see the field. “We’ll go in the game and see what happens and see how the game plays out. ... Our job is to win the game. Do the best that we can with the amount of players that we have and answer all of the questions and get to the next game.”

USC athletic director Pat Haden has shown unwavering support for his coach, though it’s widely believed that Kiffin has the hottest seat in the country and this is a make-or-break season. Finding the guy to replace Matt Barkley is a big decision -- one that could determine his future at USC. If he needs a couple extra weeks to make it, so be it. With the caveat that they are winning.

Neither Kessler nor Wittek looked particularly crisp in Week 1. Kessler was 10 of 19 for 95 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Wittek was 5 of 10 for 77 yards. The gameplan was a conservative one, to say the least. And neither got great play from an offensive line that looked more suspect than solid. As is usually the case, there is more at play than simply the quarterbacks.

So this week Kiffin will be looking for improved consistency across the board. For example, a more efficient performance in the pass attack (they combined for 51 percent); better production on third down (USC was 3 of 14) and better production in the red zone. USC was 4 of 4 inside the 20, but twice settled for field goals.

Kiffin offered this earlier in the week when asked to compare his quarterbacks: “I think they’ve become more similar over time because they’ve worked on the weaknesses in their game. There’s not much different when the guys are in there.”

And therein lies the problem. Kiffin doesn’t need two guys who are the same. He needs one who can be good enough to consistently get the job done. Until that happens, the current line of questioning will likely continue -- even if they keep winning.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
10:00
AM ET
A look at what we learned about the Pac-12 in Week 1.

Keith Price
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenWashington's Keith Price dazzled in his 2013 debut, throwing for 324 yards and two TDs.
Washington looks to be legit: Per my co-blogger, Washington quarterback Keith Price was “lights out” in his performance against Boise State. Bishop Sankey picked up where he left off last season, and the defense kept the Broncos out of the end zone. For those nervous about letting their expectations get raised, go ahead and raise them. Oh yeah, and you get the best tight end in the country back next week.

Andy Phillips is now a household name: In his first career game, the redshirt freshman kicker from Utah went 3-for-3, including a 45-yarder on his first career kick -- and executed a perfect onside kick to swing the momentum in the Utes’ victory over in-state rival Utah State.

USC QB TBD: Is it going to be Cody Kessler or Max Wittek at USC? What we learned is we didn’t learn much. Neither looked particularly sharp as USC struggled offensively against Hawaii. Kessler was 10-of-19 for 95 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Wittek was 5-of-10 for 77 yards. Both seemed constrained by a conservative gameplan of short throws and swing passes.

Oregon likes to run (well, duh): Three different Ducks eclipsed the 100-yard mark: De’Anthony Thomas, Marcus Mariota and Byron Marshall. In all, the Ducks rushed for 500 yards and a robust 11.1 yards per carry against Nicholls State. It marked the first time in school history three players went for 100 yards in the same game. Yes, it was Nicholls State, but you have to figure rushing records are getting harder and harder to break at Oregon.

DAT the featured back? New Oregon coach Mark Helfrich had been fairly noncommittal when talking about how Thomas would be used. He looked the part of an every-down back Saturday night, carrying 18 times for 128 yards and two touchdowns. The 18 carries were a career high.

Utah’s depth will be tested: For the second season in a row, the Utes lost a big-name player for the year at the hands of Utah State. Wide receiver Kenneth Scott will miss the rest of the season after suffering a leg injury in the first quarter. Others will have to step up. Sean Fitzgerald looked pretty good in relief, catching five balls for 79 yards.

They’re serious about this ejection thing: The NCAA’s new targeting rule, which went into effect this season, can lead to an ejection on the spot if the official deems it a head-to-head hit. The first big-name casualty was Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell, who makes up half of Oregon’s outstanding cornerback tandem with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Miller was ejected late in the first quarter of Oregon’s win over Nicholls State.

Really, Beavers? Maybe more of the offseason focus should have been on the defense, and less about the quarterback competition. Sean Mannion played brilliantly. The defense, not so much, allowing Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams to throw for 411 yards and run for 107. Not that it bears repeating, but this is the second time in three seasons the Beavers have opened the season with a loss to an FCS team.

We’re not done yet: One more game on the Week 1 docket with Colorado and Colorado State squaring off Sunday in Denver.

The Cougs looked better: A gutty effort in SEC country from Washington State, which went toe-to-toe with Auburn before falling 31-24. Turnovers continue to be a curse and three interceptions from Connor Halliday, including one in the red zone in the fourth quarter, contributed to WSU’s downfall.

Speaking of turnovers: In its nine games (Colorado pending), the Pac-12 won the turnover battle, 15-11. When the Pac-12 tied in turnovers (Utah, Cal, Oregon State, Washington), it was 2-2. When it won the turnover battle (Arizona, Oregon, USC), it was 3-0, and when it lost the turnover battle (UCLA, Washington State), it was 1-1.

Special teams had special plays: See Vincenzo D’Amato’s pass to Jackson Bouza on the fake field goal (one of the more creative give-and-gos I’ve seen). See UCLA’s punt block for a touchdown against Nevada. See Phillips’ performance.

Speaking of special: After posting the worst field-goal percentage in college football last year (67.9 percent) the Pac-12 kickers came out swinging in Week 1, converting on 14 of 17 attempts (82 percent).

Video: USC auditioning QBs

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
9:00
AM ET

Brett McMurphy and Danny Kanell discuss Lane Kiffin's comments about using both Max Wittek and Cody Kessler in USC's opener against Hawaii.

SPONSORED HEADLINES